Page last updated at 00:42 GMT, Monday, 28 December 2009

Heart study targets immune cells in the arteries

Artery cross section showing a plaque
Ruptured plaques can cause a heart attack

Scientists are to try to develop a treatment to target harmful immune cells in the arteries that are believed to trigger many heart attacks.

It is two decades since it was established a patient's immune system could produce the inflammation in the arteries that leads to an attack.

But treatments based on this knowledge have so far proved ineffective.

The Bristol Heart Institute says this could be because drugs kill off the helpful as well as the harmful cells.

With the backing of the British Heart Foundation, they want to look at developing a treatment that specifically targets the more harmful immune cells.

It is thought these are drawn to the arteries as a result of the plaques of fatty deposits that build up here.

This can lead to the artery becoming inflamed, and the wall damaged.

Such a discovery will help pave the way for new treatments to prevent heart attacks
Professor Andrew Newby

Plaques can then rupture, causing the formation of a blood clot, which can then lead to a heart attack.

"This research could point to new ways to protect fatty deposits from becoming unstable by selectively modifying the harmful immune cells while preserving their helpful activity," said Professor Andrew Newby, who will lead the £750,000 research.

"Such a discovery will help pave the way for new treatments to prevent heart attacks, which could save thousands of lives each year."

The Bristol researchers are to team up with experts from France, Sweden and the Netherlands to test the effectiveness of combining conventional drugs and new treatments to lower the immune response in the arteries of patients with heart disease, who are at risk of heart attacks.

The work could build on research being carried out at Imperial College London, where scientists recently identified one of the molecules that switches the immune cell into "attack mode" in the arteries.

More than 300 people die of a heart attack each day, and there appears to be a peak on Christmas Day and New Year's Day - perhaps, it is speculated, due to the rich food, alcohol and anxiety the festive season brings with it.



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